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Putting the ‘World’ into World Cup Qualifying

November 10th, 2017 · No Comments · Fifa, Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

If you think about it, not much pertaining to the 2018 Russia World Cup has been of a global nature, so far.

In qualifying competition, European nations played nations from the European confederation. Asian nations played other Asian nations. And so on.

The 2018 World Cup has been a regional event, to date.

That changed tonight.

Two home-and-away inter-confederation playoffs began, involving four teams and two World Cup berths which put the “globe” in “global”.

I love the inter-confederation playoffs. They are so random, so high-pressure and so-close-and-yet-so-far — both in proximity to Russia 2018 as well as physical distance from the opponent.

Australia versus Honduras. New Zealand versus Peru. Each of the winners goes to Russia.

How fun.

Those are matchups that would never happen, in the normal course of events. Those are nations that probably have next-to-zero interaction on a human or business level.

It requires the inter-confederation playoffs to get them on the same soccer pitch.

And some really long plane rides.

From Sydney to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is 8,000 air miles, if the teams are flying a charter taking a straight line. The distance from Wellington, New Zealand, to Lima, Peru, is 6,600 miles — and that is if all four teams are taking the “back” way, across the Pacific.

Those are significant plane rides, and one can imagine the jet lag the players will endure.

Which would seem to favor the host teams for the first match, Honduras and New Zealand. Those two have to travel only once while the outcome is being determined. Meanwhile, the Aussies and Peruvians had to travel halfway round the world to play Game 1 (each of which ended 0-0), then had to fly back to host Game 2, on November 15.

(I really do hope Fifa, or perhaps the confederations, coughed up the money for these teams to travel via charter, because getting from New Zealand to Lima and from Australia to San Pedro Sula, or vice versa, pretty much has to be three commercial flights.)

Another factor perhaps being overlooked is the altitude of one of the venues, at Lima, which is a few feet short a mile in altitude. New Zealand’s players tend to live and play a few feet above the Southern Ocean.

And how did these four end up squaring off?

Unable to come to a decision about how many teams each confederation should send to the World Cup finals, Fifa held on to two berths and gave four confederations a half-berth. It gave Oceania 0.5 berths, North America 3.5 berths, Asia 4.5 berths and South America 5.5.

And those four best-of-the-rest “point-5” teams advanced to the inter-continental playoffs, putting them so close to Russia they can smell the cabbage boiling.

Inter-continental playoffs first appeared ahead of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. In that one, Wales defeated Israel by an aggregate 4-0.

And these last-into-the-tournament playoffs have been, more likely than not, a final feature of World Cup qualifying since 1958.

It created some of its own mythos, like the Curse of Oz, in which Australia lost four consecutive playoffs (1986, 1994, 1998, 2002) before winning one in 2006 via shootout — still the only example of a team making the World Cup via shootout.

And Bahrain, a tiny Gulf kingdom so small it is hard to imagine it could round up 11 competent players, lost in the inter-confederations tournament in both 2006 and 2010 — each time by a single goal.

Anyway, it is fun. It is interesting. A fan does not have to be interested in the particular teams to recognize the high-anxiety of the inter-confederation playoffs.

And we may have only one more round of these in the future, now that Fifa is reducing the drama that is qualifying by expanding to the World Cup field to 48 teams (from the current 32) in time for the 2026 World Cup, and it would be something of a surprise if Fifa still had to resort to the point-5 solution and those strange but wonderful showdowns.

Ack. Ruining a good thing.


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